The Finkler verdict…and other books of the year

November 28, 2010 at 12:12 am (Jim D, literature)


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Howard Jacobson’s  Man Booker-winning novel ‘The Finkler Question’ is a great book. It’s a comedy of sorts – but a comedy of  seriousness and sadness. It deals with relationships, identity, anti-semitism (especially “left” Guardianista anti-semitism), love, friendship and loss. What follows is an old widower’s thoughts about the death of his wife:

The worst of times, Libor remembered, were the mornings. For her and for him, but it was her he was thinking about.

There was never any peace with it: neither had what could be called religious faith, both rejected false consolation, but there would be an hour there when the lights were dim and he would lie by her side, stroking her hair or holding her hand, not knowing if she was awake or asleep – but he was thinking about her, not him – an hour when, awake or asleep, she appeared to have accepted what she had no choice but to accept, and the idea of returning to earth, or even to nothing, caught the quiet of assent.

She could smile at him in the night when the pain was eased. She could look deep into his eyes, beckon him to her and whisper what he thought would be a fond memory into his ear, but which turned out to be a raucous allusion, an obscenity even. She wanted him to laugh, because they had laughed so often together. He had made her laugh at the beginning. Laughter had been his most precious gift to her. His ability to make her laugh was the reason – one of the reasons – she had chosen him above Horowitz. Laughter had never been at war with the softer emotions in her. She could roar and be gentle in the same breath. And now she wanted laughter to be her final gift to him.

In the stealthy alternations of rudery and sweetness, somewhere between waking and sleep, light and darkness, they found – she found, she found -a modus mortis.

It was bearable, then. Not a peace or a resignation, but an engagement of the fact of death with the fact of life.  Though she was mdying they were still living, together. He would turn the lights out and return to her side and listen to her going off and know thatn she was living with dying.

But in the morning the horror of it returned. Not only the horror of the pain and what she knew she must have looked like, but the horror of the knowledge.

If Libor could only have spared her that knowledge! He would have died for her to spare her that knowledge, only that would have been to burden her with another, and she assured him, greater loss. He could not bear, when morning broke, her waking up to what she had perhaps forgotten all about while she slept. He imagined the finest division of time, the millioneth of a millioneth of a second of pure mental excruciation in which the terrible incontrovertibility  of mher finished life returned to her. No laughter or consoling obscenities in the first minutes of the morning. No companiable sorrowing together either. She lay there on her own, not wanting to hear from him, unavailable to him, staring up at the ceiling -as though that was the route out she would finally take -seeing the ice-cold certainty of her soon becoming nothing.

The morning was always waiting for her. No matter where they had got to the night before, no matter what quiet almost bearable illusion of living with her dying he believed her to have attained, the morning always dashed it.

So the morning was always waiting for Libor too. The morning waiting for her to wake. And now the morning waiting for himself to wake.

He wished he’d been a believer. He wished they both had, though one of them might have taken the other along. But belief had its underbelly of doubting too. How could it be otherwise? You would see the meaning in the night, see God’s face even, if you were lucky – the shechina: he had always loved that concept, or the sound of it at least, God’s refulgence – but the next day, or the next, it would be gone. Faith wasn’t a mystery to him; the mystery to him was holding on to faith.

He kissed her eyes at night and tried to fall asleep himself in hope. But things didn’t get better; they got worse, precisely because every careful crafting of feeling better, of assent, submission, accomodation – he didn’t have the word – survived no more than a single night. Nothing was ever settled. Nothing ever sealed. The day began again as though the horror had that very moment been borne in on her for the first time.

And on him.

 Other books of the year:

* Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

* Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt

* Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

* Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

* Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica ed: Anthony Thwaite

* The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Jonothan Schneer

* Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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